There are few management skills more powerful than the discipline of clearly articulating the problem you seek to solve before jumping into action.
It’s hard to pick up a current business publication without reading about the imperative to change. The world, this line of argument suggests, is evolving at an ever-faster rate, and organizations that do not adapt will be left behind. Left silent in these arguments is which organizations will drive that change and how they will do it. Academic research suggests that the ability to incorporate new ideas and technologies into existing ways of doing things plays a big role in separating leaders from the rest of the pack,1 and studies clearly show that it is easier to manage a sequence of bite-sized changes than one huge reorganization or change initiative.2 But, while many organizations strive for continuous change and learning, few actually achieve those goals on a regular basis.3 Two of the authors have studied and tried to make change for more than two decades, but it was a frustrating meeting that opened our eyes to one of the keys to leading the pack rather than constantly trying to catch up.
In the late 1990s, one of the authors, Don Kieffer, was ready to launch a big change initiative: implementing the Toyota production system in one of Harley-Davidson Inc.’s engine plants. He hired a seasoned consultant, Hajime Oba, to help. On the appointed day, Mr. Oba arrived, took a tour of the plant, and then returned to Don’s office, where Don started asking questions: When do we start? What kind of results should I expect? How much is it going to cost me? But, Mr. Oba wouldn’t answer those questions. Instead he responded repeatedly with one of his own: “Mr. Kieffer, what problem are you trying to solve?” Don was perplexed. He was ready to spend money and he had one of the world’s experts on the Toyota production system in his office, but the expert (Mr. Oba) wouldn’t tell Don how to get started.
The day did not end well. Don grew exasperated with what seemed like a word game, and Mr. Oba, tired of not getting an answer to his question, eventually walked out of Don’s office. But, despite the frustration on both sides, we later realized that Mr. Oba was trying to teach Don one of the foundational skills in leading effective change: formulating a clear problem statement. Since Mr.